Oxford, England

Jason R. Matheson
8 min readSep 24, 2023

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It was time to explore England outside of London. Airfares had dropped from summer highs and the peak of the tourist crush had passed here in late September. But the “shoulder season” still offered up relatively good weather, at least by British standards.

I carefully filled my large backpack with clothes to cover a month and a smaller backpack with my laptop and other accessories. No checked bags here. I like to buy toiletries once in Europe and wash regularly so no need for a ton of stuff to lug around.

Sitting on the tarmac at Tulsa International with storms around us, I was encouraged to see a rainbow outside my little window. Unfortunately, the pilot informed us thunderstorms in Dallas had closed the runways there so we were delayed for a couple hours. I was certain I’d miss my connecting flight over the Atlantic.

Somehow, American Airlines held the flight, possibly due to so many passengers being delayed coming into DFW. I gratefully dashed to my gate and once seated was soon watching movies to pass the time after we were in air.

I can’t sleep on flights but this one didn’t seem so long. I got up every now and then to stretch my legs plus the flight crew kept us comfortable. We fast-forwarded six hours ahead of Central Time when we landed at Heathrow. After sailing through UK customs, I caught a bus to the university city of Oxford, about an hour and half to the west of the airport.

A downpour served as my proper English welcome as I trudged from the bus stop to a room inside Wadham College. To battle jet lag, I stayed up as late as possible. I found a cozy pub and enjoyed my first English pint as well as a tasty plate of fish and chips. Then I stretched my legs and hiked a bit of campus which took on a golden glow during the rainy night.

The next morning presented me with brilliant weather, dry and sunny. I found that each of Oxford’s colleges were like walled cities, often surrounding grassy quads and hidden gardens.

Wadham featured an ancient timbered hall with well-worn benches and tables serving up a hearty English breakfast. I passed on the traditional beans but enjoyed grilled tomatoes and sautéd mushrooms with my fried egg and ham (which the English call bacon).

I was ready to start exploring Oxford, especially with such beautiful weather. I’d read that during World War II, Hitler intended to use this city as his administrative center once the Germans conquered Great Britain. That’s why Oxford was spared Luftwaffe bombs and that’s why its historic center remained intact to this day.

As I planned, Oxford proved to be the perfect place to wander and explore back lanes while I acclimated myself to Europe. This trip would be even easier since there was no language barrier. I was soon climbing church towers for views out over the city to get my bearings.

The ornate college buildings were lavishly decorated with gothic spires and arches. I took time to admire the intricate carvings which seemed to cover every inch of the facades.

The city historically occupied a shallow ford along the River Thames, shallow enough to drive oxen across. Thus, the name: Oxford. Funny when you realize that one of the world’s premier institutions of higher learning was named for a place cows crossed the river.

I took a tour of the famed Bodleian, the main research library of the University and one of the oldest in Europe. The Bodleian Library today holds over 13 million printed items. First opened to scholars in 1602, it incorporates an earlier library built by the University in the 15th century to house books donated by Humfrey, Duke of Gloucester.

Our tour guide explained that students had to swear an oath that they would not bring any flame into the library which might wipe out its precious collection of books. So precious that books were at first chained to the desk so they could never be removed from the library.

This of course was before the printing press when individual books were still painstakingly created by hand. Paper and the intense effort were expensive so books at the time were only available to the very rich.

I also learned that Oxford’s historic crest, adopted around the year 1400, featured the motto of the University “Dominus illuminatio mea” or “The Lord is my light” upon an open book surrounded by three crowns.

Rival Cambridge jokes that its crest, featuring a closed book, meant that they had finished the story while Oxford was still on the same page (English humor).

I continued to wander the city and understood that there was no defined campus here. Rather, each college in Oxford was integrated into the cityscape often with one main door carefully controlling access to the spaces inside the walls.

Such a historic and interesting place to begin the exploration of this country. Visiting only London and thinking you’d seen England would be like visiting only New York City and thinking you’d seen America.

Of course Oxford was still close enough to be in the orbit of London. We won’t experience the English countryside until we travelled further west.

I’ve found that university towns are some of the best places to visit. Full of students and life, often with cheaper places to eat and lots of places to find a welcome pint. Even the multitude of mueseums here were free to enter.

Stay tuned as we explore the Cotswalds, further into southwest England, plenty of English villages and old pubs along the way.

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Thanks for coming along on the trip. If you have questions or suggestions, tweet @JasonRMatheson. Missed an entry? Click here.

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Jason R. Matheson

I prefer to travel slow. Enjoy history, design, architecture, cars, sports digital. Auburn alum, Sooner born.